Russia’s first Formula 1 driver and podium finisher Vitaly Petrov believes that his new team, SMP Racing, could have F1 ambitions in the long term.
Petrov – who drove for Renault and Caterham in his three-year F1 career – will race for SMP in the LMP2 division of the FIA World Endurance Championship this season, piloting the outfit’s BR01 that took pole position for last weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The Russian outfit, which has claimed two WEC titles in the last two seasons, now boasts one of the biggest driver development schemes in the sport – and Petrov thinks that could eventually stretch all the way to F1.
“The team has a lot of different programmes planned in future,” Petrov told Motorsport.com. “Maybe we go LMP1, maybe in future we go to F1, nobody knows yet. But they want to be the best team in the world, and this is what I like.
“I will not just be a race driver in the SMP programme, and this is the kind of contract I was waiting for after F1. We have a lot of other drivers and I will be working together with them – and to help the general people in Russia to build up motorsport there.
“It’s already one of the biggest programmes in the world [SMP supports over 50 drivers], and this year it will be bigger than ever. I think you’ll see a lot of changes this year. We need to make racing more popular in Russia.
“We now have a Formula 1 track. It’s very important to have that – and Sochi has been very popular over the two years. We were waiting a long time for this.”
“Big future” in WEC
Petrov – who is returning to full-time racing after a year out following an unsuccessful DTM campaign in 2014 – will spearhead SMP’s LMP2 attack this season.
“I’m really looking forward to racing our Russian prototype, BR01,” said Petrov. “The car is quite good, it took pole for the Daytona 24 Hours, and we need to work hard in testing before the start of the WEC season.
“I can see a big future here; together with a Russian team, Russian people to develop a Russian car – it might take two or three years – we have a lot of work here but it’s a great opportunity.
“This car has a big potential, and we knew this from the test at Daytona – we had some issues with the engine in practice [after taking pole] and then it looked like the replacement engine wasn’t strong enough in the race.
“Of course we can win this year already, because the car looks quick. Now we start to work on the tests, we'll do quite a lot of testing – Le Mans and WEC we'll try to win.”
Return to Le Mans
Petrov, 31, has raced in the Le Mans 24 Hours previously, and has three sportscar starts to his name – which he combined with his 2007 GP2 campaign.
“I already have some experience racing at Le Mans in 2007 [in a Courage-AER LMP2 with Romain Iannetta and Liz Halliday] and an LMP2 race at Valencia [finishing 11th in a Le Mans Series race with Jean-Marc Gounon] and in the Courage LMP1 at Spa [with Gounon and Guillaume Moreau].
“So I more or less know the game here, nothing new. The people with who I will be working, I’ve worked with them before or I’ve been friends with them. The key to this project is to develop the car together, we need to bring the car home and achieve the results together.
“Everybody here understands what we have to do. They have raced at Le Mans for the last few years, they already know what to expect. We need a good testing programme, and then I think we have a good chance of success.
“The most important thing is that this team is very professional. They are working very hard to bring this car to the top level, and the team has already won the WEC in LMP2 in 2014 and GTE Am last year.”